Taiwan’s Dwindling Diplomatic Allies
Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 8
Amidst the drama surrounding Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s early April stopover in Southern California, where she met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the subsequent People’s Liberation Army (PLA) maneuvers around Taiwan that followed, it can be easy to forget why the Taiwanese President was transiting the U.S. in the first place. Tsai was returning home after a trip to Taiwan’s two remaining diplomatic allies in Central America, Guatemala and Belize, which was organized around the theme of “Meeting Democratic Partners, Fostering Shared Prosperity” (民主夥伴共榮之旅) (Office of the President, Republic of China [ROC] [Taiwan], March 29). Days prior to Tsai’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere, Honduras, which had maintained official relations with the Republic of China (ROC) for 82 years, established formal ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs [FMPRC], March 26). The move occurred despite U.S. efforts to dissuade Honduras. On March 18, the Biden administration dispatched senior envoy and special adviser for the Americas, former Senator Chris Dodd, who is also well-regarded in Taipei, to Honduras in a last-minute effort to encourage the Xiomara Castro government to change course in derecognizing Taiwan (Taipei Times March 18).
Under the government of Xiomara Castro, who took office early last year, Honduras has sought to pit Taipei and Beijing against each other in a bidding war for diplomatic recognition. While China has offered inducements, Taiwan has both rejected and called out the Castro government’s efforts to condition the continuation of the official relationship on major increases in financial assistance. Foreign Minister Eduardo Enrique Reina initially denied Taipei’s claims that Honduras had asked Taiwan for $2.5 billion but eventually acknowledged to the media that the Castro government had sought to obtain $2 billion in aid (ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs [Taiwan MOFA], March 23). However, he also claimed his country “never received a substantive response from the Taiwanese side” (TVBS, March 24). In a notice regarding these revelations and regretting the pending shift in recognition, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry warned Honduras not to fall prey to China’s “debt trap diplomacy” (Taiwan MOFA, March 23).
Upon announcing the termination of relations with Honduras, Tsai cautioned Taiwan’s other diplomatic allies against following the same course, stressing that “we will not engage in a meaningless contest of ‘dollar diplomacy’ with China.” She also criticized the PRC’s efforts to employ “any and all means to suppress Taiwan’s international participation” (Office of the President, Taiwan, March 26). Earlier this week, the Tsai government averted another diplomatic setback with the election of Santiago Pena of the ruling conservative Colorado Party to the presidency in Paraguay. Pena’s opponent, Efrain Alegre, who led a broad center-left coalition, campaigned on switching recognition from the ROC to the PRC in order to facilitate Paraguay’s access to China’s large agricultural import market (Nikkei Asia, April 18). In a response to a congratulatory tweet from President Tsai, Pena stated that “we are going to continue strengthening our historic ties of brotherhood and cooperation between our countries” (Taiwan News, May 2). However, the Tsai administration is hardly free from the challenge of maintaining the ROC’s dwindling network of official relationships. Guatemala, which is Taiwan’s largest diplomatic ally, will go to the polls to elect a new president in late June. President Alejandro Eduardo Giammattei Falla, who has been a staunch supporter of maintaining close ties with the ROC, is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term. According to long-time China-Latin America analyst R. Evan Ellis the prospect of “a victory by either a center-left-oriented candidate more open to working with the PRC such as Sandra Torres, or a right-oriented candidate such as Zury Rios, whose Presidency might deepen policy conflict with the Biden Administration, could present a small but not insignificant risk of Guatemalan diplomatic recognition of the PRC” (CEEP, March 7).
Understanding the Importance of Diplomatic Allies to Taiwan
Outside observers are sometimes perplexed by Taiwan’s attachment to its dwindling coterie of diplomatic allies, which, with the exceptions of the Vatican in Europe and Eswatini in Africa, comprises small states in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific: Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Paraguay, St. Kittis and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Tuvalu (Taiwan MOFA). For Taiwan, these official relationships have both normative and practical significance. As a distinct Taiwanese national identity has taken hold over the past few decades, many Taiwanese believe that their country, an advanced economy, cultural powerhouse and self-governing democracy with all the attributes of statehood except for de jure independence, can and should play a constructive role in the global community. However, the kind of recognition among the community of nations that Taiwan desires is largely lacking, both because it has not declared de jure independence from China and because Beijing has made observance of the “one-China Principle” (一个中国原则) a precondition for conducting official diplomatic relations with other states (FMPRC, August 2, 2022).
Today, Taiwan’s relationships with its closest partners, such as the U.S. and Japan, are relegated to semi-official and unofficial channels, with Taiwanese leaders largely cut off from engagements that are routine for their foreign counterparts. State-to-state relations with diplomatic allies allow Taiwan to exercise this sovereign right. In the context of Taiwan’s constrained international space, interactions between the Taiwanese president and other heads of state are particularly significant. During Tsai’s visit to Guatemala, President Giammattei spoke to these sentiments, stating that “Taiwan is a sovereign and independent country,” which for Guatemala “is the only real China. Guatemala supports Taiwan’s participation in international organizations such as the WHO and relevant United Nations systems” (Liberty Times Net, April 2). In response to China’s criticism of the recent April 24-27 return visit by President Giammattei to Taiwan, an ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement stressed that “when Taiwan engages in interactions and exchanges with diplomatic allies, it exercises a basic right of a sovereign nation and fosters unity among democracies” (MOFA, April 25).
Beijing’s Poaching of Taiwan’s Diplomatic Allies: Inevitable or Avoidable?
The decision by Honduras to recognize the PRC is the latest in a string of defections by Taiwan’s longstanding diplomatic allies. As soon as Tsai was elected in early 2016, Beijing broke the “diplomatic truce” that had been observed with the more pro-China KMT administration of President Ma Ying-Jeou, who led Taiwan from 2008 to 2016, with Gambia switching recognition to the PRC early that year (PRC Foreign Ministry [FMPRC], March 17, 2016).
Unsurprisingly, the deep-blue Ma Ying-Jeou Foundation blamed the Tsai administration for losing Honduras as a diplomatic ally, citing the breakdown of cross-Strait dialogue as the cause and calling on ordinary Taiwanese people to “repair the broken net” of ties with China (Focus Taiwan, March 26). Other, more pro-status quo, “light blue” members of the KMT opposition acknowledged the serious challenges posed by Beijing’s diplomatic pressure campaign while also questioning the Tsai administration’s diplomatic aptitude. For example, KMT legislator (and former chairperson) Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) lamented that “the Tsai government has been in power for nearly seven years and has broken off diplomatic relations with nine countries.” Chiang acknowledged, however, that with the U.S.-China confrontation and fraught cross-Strait relations, the nation faces a very difficult international situation as China has increased its efforts to contain and isolate Taiwan, while also seeking to enmesh the ROC in a costly and unwinnable “diplomatic arms race.” However, he contended that in order to meet these challenges, Taiwan must “adapt a more flexible and pragmatic approach to international diplomacy” (CTWANT, March 26).
While the breakdown of the Ma-era diplomatic truce is one element driving Taiwan’s recent losses of long-time diplomatic allies, other factors are also at play. The first is the reality that regardless of which party is at the helm in Taipei, Beijing ultimately seeks to reduce the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to zero. For the PRC, this would lend powerful impetus to its efforts to negate the ROC’s legitimacy as a state and deny Taiwan’s claim to be distinct from China. While sustaining official relationships provide both a semblance of international space and legitimacy for Taiwan, for the PRC, whittling down the ROC’s few remaining allies serves the opposite purpose. In doing so, Beijing seeks to promote the “One China Principle” as a universally recognized international norm. Hence, the PRC holds up all diplomatic defections from Taiwan to China, as evidence of the universality of the One China Principle. In the joint press conference to announce the establishment of official relations between the PRC and Honduras, PRC Foreign Minister Qin Gang cited the two nations’ newly signed joint communiqué in which “Honduras recognizes there is but one China in the world, the Government of the PRC is the sole legal Government representing the whole of China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.” Qin then emphasized that “the one-China principle is a prevailing consensus of the international community and a basic norm in international relations” (FMPRC, March 26).
Another factor that has added pressure to Taiwan’s ability to sustain longstanding official diplomatic relationships is the impact of Chinese foreign policy becoming much more ambitious under Xi, who abandoned the Deng-Jiang-Hu foreign policy approach of “hide and bide” in favor of “striving for achievements” early in his tenure (Tsinghua University School of Social Sciences, November 25, 2013). As the PRC has undertaken a more assertive and increasingly global foreign policy under Xi, China has emerged as a player in regions where it had until recently largely been a non-factor. The most seismic shift has occurred in Central America, with Panama switching relations from the ROC to the PRC in 2017, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic in 2018, Nicaragua in 2021 and Honduras this year (Global Times, March 20; Americas Quarterly, July 1, 2021). This highlights a third factor driving Taiwan’s recent defections of the diplomatic partners. As most of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies are concentrated in the Americas and the Pacific, regions where the U.S. and its allies have historically been predominant, Beijing has been incentivized to induce these countries to switch recognition in order to boost its influence and prestige at Washington’s expense.
If the PRC ever succeed in reducing Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to zero, Beijing would gain a powerful propaganda weapon to cast unification as inevitable, both to the Taiwanese populace and to the global community. In the event of an invasion by the PRC; such a situation would further complicate efforts by the U.S. and Taiwan’s other international partners to rally support for a country, with which they themselves lack official relations. As a result, for Taiwan, the importance of retaining its remaining thirteen official relationships far outstrips any economic or material interests these ties might yield. Finally, while the diplomatic contest between the PRC and the ROC may seem tangential to Taiwan’s future, the focus and resources that both Beijing and Taipei have devoted to wooing states in Latin America and the Pacific that are on the fence suggests otherwise.
John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.